Supporting Students in Divided Times: Safety First

Strong student reactions are appearing in campuses all over the country in the wake of the 2016 Presidential election.  Raw anger and frustration are coming from various directions: some from a crushing loss; others feel their “liberal” peers and professors disrespected their beliefs throughout campaign season; still others are fearful of potential discrimination based on their identity and violence.

These reactions reflect underlying pain and their struggle to address it.  The Divided Community Project suggests three principles for harnessing student energy toward positive outcomes: 1) establish a safe environment; 2) host opportunities where students can safely express emotion and are empowered to make positive contributions toward addressing the concerns and fears of their peers; and, 3) maintain a positive, constructive environment.

This post explores the importance of the first of the three principles, establishing a safe environment.

Help create an atmosphere of security and comfort.

A safe environment is one in which administrators, faculty and students are comfortable to speak authentically with each other.  Students desire their leaders to understand the breadth of their concerns or fears—not simply those that arose post-election.  For one group these concerns might include discriminatory police practices and recent statements by fellow students.  For another group these concerns might include statements by faculty and fellow students disparaging Trump supporters or feelings that school faculty members are mostly more liberal than they are.

Student concerns and fears present school leaders an opportunity to appreciate the urgency and importance that these fears and concerns represent.  For example, student trust may be diminished if students perceive administrative responses are merely business as usual.

To establish a safe environment, school leaders should show they are willing to listen to students and student leaders.  Administrators should consider listening to students and student leaders before they take on a series of well-meaning actions.  This cannot just be for show, i.e. having a listening session and then proceeding with a previous plan. Administrators should be listening for ideas that can then be acted upon. Administrators should also seek to understand how broadly or narrowly students view the issues; the depth and urgency of the fears and concerns; and, whether students are ready to laugh or whether humor would sound inappropriate.

Administrators should consider taking further steps to be sure that everyone on the faculty and staff has a sense of the variety, breadth, depth, and urgency of these student feelings. Holding a meeting or series of meetings with faculty and staff, rather than sending out an email, to convey and hear what students are saying.  Administrators might consider making themselves more available for one on one conversations. This is an opportunity for faculty and staff to nurture an inclusive environment. Administrators should carefully consider a trusted and impartial facilitator skilled at creating a supportive and open dialogue.

Throughout such times leaders must constantly reinforce the importance of civility and that the leaders will not tolerate hate crimes or bullying. Leaders should also provide resources which illustrate best practices for inclusive classrooms, point students in need to counseling and ombud services, how to prevent or report crimes and highlight professional obligations.  A series of meetings may help to solicit the faculty and staff members’ ideas for additional programmatic responses. We will discuss such responses in coming posts, but consider student suggestions like facilitator-led groups around a shared affinity to more safely discuss their concerns e.g. Clinton supporters, Trump supporters, students of color, and LGBTQ individuals; or social gatherings that emphasize community and perhaps even fun, like a milk shake social exam break.

A safe environment demonstrates that leaders understand the depth and breadth of student fears and concerns.  Methods for creating a secure university environment require authentic collaborative action from university leaders.

In our next post we will discuss some venues universities can use where students can safely express emotions and are empowered to make positive contributions to resolving the fears and concerns of others.  Our final post will consider how to maintain a positive, constructive environment.